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Recognize the monk with the sunglasses? Yes, it's Martin Luther

PROVO, Utah — You likely hear the buzzword "social influencer" almost daily if you follow business or pop culture trends on Twitter or on other social media platforms. But being recognized as a social media user with persuasive access to a wide audience is a prized designation awarded to only a select few.

It's safe to assume that "social influencer” was not a label attached to Martin Luther when he, according to custom, nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of a Wittenberg, Germany, church just over 500 years ago. Still, his controversial, albeit persuasive, writings kicked off the Reformation — and served as a faith-driven prologue to the Restoration of gospel.

Martin Luther may not have had a single Twitter follower or Facebook friend in 1517, but his writings were quintessentially viral. He was then — and remains now — a pivotal social influencer.

An ongoing exhibition at Brigham Young University’s Harold B. Lee Library entitled “Martin Luther Media Star” examines the German monk’s historical reach and his contemporary relevance.

Just don’t expect to find dusty displays resting behind velvet ropes. “Martin Luther Media Star” is colorful, interactive and even a bit playful. A neon green portrait of the man himself donning a pair of red sunglasses welcomes visitors.

Decorated in bright colors, the BYU exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" examines a key historical figure with playful modern eyes.
Decorated in bright colors, the BYU exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" examines a key historical figure with playful modern eyes. Photo: Courtesy BYU Harold B. Lee Library

By today’s definition, Martin Luther was a media celebrity. Besides his “95 Theses,” Luther also had a short pamphlet printed called “The Sermon on Indulgences and Grace” that became the Reformation’s first great bestseller, according to the exhibition.

The Harold B. Lee Library is an apt venue for a religious history narrative with a decidedly contemporary voice, said curator Maggie Kopp.

First, “we have a Reformation collection that is a little underutilized,” she said.

And second, summer and fall are busy seasons for social-media savvy young people (and, yes, their parents and grandparents) at the Church-owned school. Besides BYU students attending the summer semester, the campus is filled with teenagers participating in Especially For Youth and other camps. Meanwhile, legions of adults gather for a variety of school-sponsored conferences.

“We’ve had good feedback,” said Kopp. “Every time I walked through the exhibit, there’s somebody visiting.”

Visitors quickly realize there’s something a bit different about “Martin Luther Media Star.” Plenty of historical facts add context to books, pamphlets and other relics on display. But wall texts include headings such as “Stay Woke” and “Preaching on Point," offering a wink or two to library patrons.

Historical wall texts posted at the BYU exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" utilize modern slang, including "Stay Woke."
Historical wall texts posted at the BYU exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" utilize modern slang, including "Stay Woke." Photo: Courtesy BYU Harold B. Lee Library

The exhibition also reminds visitors of Martin Luther’s prominent role in Latter-day Saint teachings. In the 1940’s, for example, he was referred to 13 times in general conference talks.

President M. Russell Ballard, Acting President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, has referenced Martin Luther on multiple occasions.

The Dark Ages were especially dark because the light of the gospel of Jesus Christ had been lost, he said in his October 1994 general conference address:

“Then in 1517, the Spirit moved Martin Luther, a German priest who was disturbed at how far the church had strayed from the gospel as taught by Christ. His work led to a reformation, a movement that was taken up by such other visionaries as John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, John Wesley and John Smith.

“I believe these reformers were inspired to create a religious climate in which God could restore lost truths and priesthood authority.”

Visitors to BYU's exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" scribble thoughts on an interactive display.
Visitors to BYU's exhibition "Martin Luther Media Star" scribble thoughts on an interactive display. Photo: Courtesy BYU Harold B. Lee Library

Kopp said Latter-day Saint visitors will surely spot similarities between the reformer, Martin Luther, and the restorer, the Prophet Joseph Smith. They were spiritually curious seekers prompted to action by prayerful study of the scriptures. And both men, she added, “stood up for their beliefs.”

“Martin Luther Media Star” is expected to be on display through October. The free exhibit is found on the library’s third floor.

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